Latest News

Report Finds Twenty-First-Century Rebound Continues for Most Countries, With China as Key Driver

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:11
Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR)

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that most low- and middle-income countries have continued to experience an improvement in key economic and social indicators since the “very unusual long-term failure of the last two decades of the twentieth century.”

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President’s Expected Statement on Tax Giveaway to Multinationals Is Inaccurate

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 11:40
Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition

The president is expected to claim in a speech Wednesday afternoon that a zero percent tax rate for multinational corporations that book profits offshore and a tax holiday for those multinationals that have already booked stockpiles of money offshore will increase the pay of the average American household by $4,000 — an erroneous notion according to the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (FACT Coalition).  The FACT Coalition is a non-partisan allianc

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Peace Action: Any Nuclear Weapons Expansion is a Terrible Idea - Tenfold Increase is Ludicrous

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 10:48
Peace Action

In response to reports that President Trump wanted a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Paul Kawika Martin, Senior Director for Policy and Political Affairs at Peace Action, released the following statement:

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Congress Considers Industry Giveaways for Offshore Drilling

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 10:39
Oceana

Today, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing on new legislation to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which would provide industry giveaways for offshore drilling.

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Trump’s Deregulatory Agenda Could Boost Family Business

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 09:40
Public Citizen

President Donald Trump’s deregulatory agenda could boost the bottom line of his businesses, and in some instances, Trump’s financial interests are directly at odds with protecting the public, a new report from Public Citizen and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) shows.

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The National Iranian American Council Urges Trump Not to Turn the Iran Nuclear Deal into a Crisis

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 09:10
National Iranian-American Council

Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, issued the following statement in advance of President Trump’s upcoming certification decision on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal:

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Trump Visit to UK Will Face Mass Opposition, Say Campaigners

Commondreams - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 08:26
Global Justice Now

Responding to reports that Donald Trump will make a 'working visit' to the UK in the New Year, Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now said:

“If the Trump visit is back on, so is the mass opposition to it. Theresa May may be hoping that the heat has died down, but she must prepare to be disappointed. Every day that Trump remains President, the opposition to his politics of hate and prejudice is only getting stronger. Whether the location of this ‘working visit’ is the heart of Downing Street or a golf resort in Scotland, we will be there.

Categories: Latest News

Sanders: To Lift "Outrageous" Burden of Student Debt, Time for Tuition-Free College for All

Truthout - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 07:41

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at a health care rally in Washington, DC, on June 21, 2017. (Photo: Edward Kimmel)

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In order to lift the burden of debt on millions of students and unleash the potential of current and futute generations, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declared on Tuesday night that the time is now "to make public colleges and universities tuition free" in the United States.

In the speech, delivered at Castleton University in his home state of Vermont, Sanders called for all US students, regardless of background or ambitions, to have access to higher education that would not saddle them with loans.

"It's time to reduce the outrageously heavy burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates," Sanders said.

"And let me be very clear," he added. "I am not just talking about 4-year universities and colleges. I am talking about community colleges. I am talking about vocational schools. I am talking about apprenticeships. We desperately need highly trained and highly skilled electricians, welders, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and health care workers of every kind. Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams."

Watch (Sanders' speech start at approx. 36:40):

A core plank in his 2016 presidential run and an issue the senator says he intends to keep pushing in the Senate, the idea of reducing the costs and associated debt of higher education has widespread appeal. A poll last year -- backed by similar findings both before and after -- showed that more than 60 percent of Americans support the idea of tuition-free college. More Republicans, according to a poll last month, now support than oppose such a program.

Read Sanders' full prepared remarks below:

I want to thank Castleton University for hosting this event, all of you who are here tonight and the many thousands of people on college campuses and at homes all across the country who are watching this via live stream.

I don't have to tell anyone that this country faces enormous problems - economically, politically, environmentally and socially.

"The devastating burden of high student debt not only causes enormous financial problems for individuals and families, it also destroys dreams."

Economically, over the last 40 years the middle-class of this country has been shrinking and we now have some 40 million people living in poverty. All across America we have people working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and pay the bills. Meanwhile, the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider, and we have more income and wealth inequality than almost any other major country on earth.

Politically, we have a corrupt political system which, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, allows billionaires to spend hundreds of millions each year to buy elections for candidates who represent the rich and the powerful. We also have President Trump and Republican Governors working overtime to suppress the vote, to make it harder for people of color, poor people and young people to vote.

Environmentally, we face the global crisis of climate change. The planet is getting warmer and in the United States and all over theworld we face the threat of more drought, more floods, more acidification of the oceans, more rising sea levels and more extreme weather disturbances like what we have recently seen in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. This is a monumental crisis.

Socially, as a result of President Trump's efforts to divide us up, we are seeing more overt displays of racism and anti-Semitism. We are seeing a rise in right-wing extremism, more religious bigotry against Muslims and other religious minorities and a very intentional effort to arouse hatred against undocumented immigrants - Latinos and others. We are also seeing the President try to turn back the clock on women's rights and the needs of the LGBT community. 

I raise these issues because I don't believe we are going to solve any of these problems, and a lot more that I didn't discuss, unless we address the topic I want to speak to you about tonight: the need for the United States to have the best educated population in the world, the need to make public colleges and universities tuition free and the need to significantly lower the outrageous level of student debt that currently exists.

Today, as a result of rapidly rising college costs, stagnant or declining income for the middle class and major cutbacks in state and federal aid for higher education, hundreds of thousands of bright young Americans are unable to afford to go to college. These young people have the ability, they have the desire, but their families lack the money for a higher education. How tragic is that? Not only will these young people not be able to fulfill their personal dreams, but the overall economy suffers as well. How many great scientists, doctors, educators, businesspeople are not being created because these young people do not receive the education they want and need?

But this crisis impacts not only those people who are unable to afford to go to college, it impacts millions of Americans who have attended college and graduate school - and who leave school with outrageous levels of student debt, debt that they sometimes spend a lifetime paying off. Unbelievably, in America today there are 44 million Americans who owe more than $1.3 trillion in debt. This $1.3 trillion in student debt is now higher than either credit card debt or auto loan debt.

Now what does that debt mean to the individual - especially those people who are working at jobs that do not pay them decent wages? It means that after you pay off your student debt every month you might not be able to afford a car, or buy a house or have kids.

But here's what it also means that might be even more important. It means that millions of Americans may not be doing the jobs that they want to do, the jobs that they dreamed about doing, because of the burden of this student debt.

We have a major crisis in this country in terms of early childhood education. We desperately need excellent childcare workers to provide the emotional and intellectual sustenance that our young children need and to make sure they are prepared for school. But who can make childcare into a career, earning $14 an hour or less, and pay off a large student debt? It can't be done without great sacrifice.

What about someone graduating law school and wanting to go into public law - perhaps as a public defender, a legal aid lawyer, an immigration lawyer or an environmental lawyer? How do you do that on a salary of $40,000 a year?

We are in desperate need of primary care physicians in medically underserved areas throughout rural America and in our inner cities. How can you become a primary care doctor with a student debt of $300,000? It's possible, but it's not easy.

In other words, the devastating burden of high student debt not only causes enormous financial problems for individuals and families, it also destroys dreams. It often drives people into jobs they would prefer not to be doing - but that they are forced to do in order to earn the higher salaries they need to pay off their debts.

The current situation regarding the financing of higher education is not only unfair to the working families of our country, but is incredibly stupid when we look at the long-term needs of the American economy. Everyone knows that in a highly competitive global economy, our middle class and our nation will not succeed unless we have the best-educated workforce in the world. Our economy will not grow and prosper unless we have the workforce to perform the jobs of the future.

Fifty years ago, if you had a high school degree, odds were that you could get a decent-job and make it into the middle class. The education and job skills you had allowed you to get some of the best jobs available. But an exploding technology has changed that world. While not all middle-class jobs in today's economy require post-secondary education, an increasing number do. By 2020, it is estimated that two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some education beyond high school. 

And these jobs, of course, tend to pay better. Nationally, a worker with an associate's degree will earn about $360,000 more over their career than a worker with a high school diploma. And a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn almost $1 million more. Bottom line: it is increasingly difficult to make it into the middle class without some higher education, because that's where the good paying jobs are.

Now, let me give you some news that's really scary, and does not bode well for the future. Not so many years ago we led the world in college graduation rates. We had a higher percentage of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 than any other country. We were the best-educated nation on earth and not surprisingly, we had the strongest economy. Today, in terms of the percentage of our young people graduating college, we have fallen to 11th place, behind such countries as Japan, South Korea, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Switzerland. 

Eleventh place is not the place for a great nation like the United States. Eleventh place is not the place to be if we want to be a prosperous nation.

In my view, the time is long overdue to change that dynamic. It's time to make public colleges and universities tuition free for the working families of our country. It is time for every school child in the country to understand that if they study hard and take their schoolwork seriously they will be able to get a higher education regardless of the income of their family. 

It's time to reduce the outrageously heavy burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates.

And let me be very clear. I am not just talking about 4-year universities and colleges. I am talking about community colleges. I am talking about vocational schools. I am talking about apprenticeships. We desperately need highly trained and highly skilled electricians, welders, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and health care workers of every kind.

Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams.  

In the richest country in the history of the world, everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay. That's why I introduced the College for All Act that would make public colleges and universities in America tuition free for families earning $125,000 per year or less -- 86 percent of our population.

This is not a radical idea. A number of nations around the world are doing just that, investing in their young people so that they will have an educated workforce that isn't burdened with enormous student debt. In Germany, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden public colleges and universities are tuition free. In Germany, public colleges are free not only for Germans, but also for international students, including some 11,000 from the United States of America.

And let us also understand that it wasn't that long ago that our own government understood the value of investing heavily in higher education, and treating it as a public good. In 1944, just before the end of World War II, Congress passed the GI Bill providing a free college education to millions of World War II veterans. It has been widely acknowledged that this was one of the most successful pieces of legislation in modern history, laying the groundwork for the extraordinary post-war economic boom, and paying for itself many times over.

But it was not just the federal government that acted in the past. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year state public university was just $256, and many of the best colleges – such as the City University of New York – did not charge any tuition. The University of California system, considered by many to be the crown jewel of public higher education in this country, did not charge tuition until the 1980s. In other words, making public colleges and universities tuition free is not a new idea. We've been there and done that. And it's a policy that works.

The good news is that in the last couple of years governors, state legislators and local officials around the country now understand the current crisis and are doing the right thing by moving forward to make public colleges and universities tuition free. This year, the City College of San Francisco began offering tuition-free college, and their enrollments for residents of that city are up by 51 percent compared to the prior year. In New York State this year, tens of thousands will go to the city's public colleges and universities without paying tuition. Similar programs have popped up in Tennessee, in Oregon, Detroit and Chicago.

Now some people will say, “Well, you know, it's a good idea making public colleges and universities tuition-free, but it's expensive, it costs a lot of money. How are you going to pay for it?”

And, here's the answer. At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when trillions of dollars in wealth have left the pockets of the middle class and have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market, we will pay for this legislation by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation. 

Again, this is not a radical idea. More than 1,000 economists have endorsed a tax on Wall Street speculation and today some 40 countries throughout the world have imposed a similar tax including Britain, Germany and France.

In 2008, the taxpayers of America bailed out Wall Street. Now, it's Wall Street's turn to rebuild the middle class by making sure that everyone can get a decent education. 

And if my conservative colleagues tell you that the cost of making public colleges and universities tuition free and cutting student debt in half at a federal cost of $569 billion over ten years is too expensive, ask them why they support President Trump's budget which would provide $1.9 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent. Those are the national priorities we are now dealing with. We can spend $569 billion over ten years to make sure that every middle-class family in this country can provide a higher education for their kids, or we can give three times that amount in tax breaks to the top one percent. I know what side I am on.

Let me be very clear. We can win this fight. Public sentiment is on our side. The American people understand the need for this legislation. But we will not win unless millions of Americans, especially young people, stand up, fight back and demand that this legislation be passed. That means you.

As a United States senator I can tell you that real change never takes place unless it comes from the grassroots, from the bottom on up. Left alone, Congress and the White House will listen to their billionaire friends on Wall Street and in corporate America, to the lobbyists and the big campaign contributors.

If we're going to win this fight your voices are needed, not only on the more than 500 campuses watching this event tonight, but from every university, college, junior college and apprenticeship program in America.

Tonight, I am asking you to act. The College for All Act I introduced with seven of my colleagues in the Senate and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced in the House of Representatives with 35 cosponsors, needs more support. This bill would make public colleges and universities tuition free for most students and cut interest rates on student debt in half.

Tonight, I am asking you to please call your member of the Senate. Ask if they are a cosponsor of S. 806. Also call your member of the House of Representatives and ask if they are a cosponsor of HR 1880. If not, ask them to sign onto the bill. Tell them your story, what this bill would mean to you and why they must support it. 

You can invite your US senators or members of Congress to your campus to talk about the high cost of higher education and what student debt means to you. On Election Day they want your vote. Now, tell them what you need, in person. That's called democracy.

But there is more to do than simply advocating for the College for All Act. We have got to work together to build a movement. And that can start on your campus through your action.

You can:

Start a conversation with your friends about the cost of college and the need to make public colleges and universities tuition free. Engage with local high school students and parents on this issue.

Ask your student government to pass a resolution in support of tuition free public college and urge the administration and board of trustees of your school to do the same.  

Ask your governor and state legislature to get moving on this issue. A number of states are already doing that. Is yours? Is it more important to give tax breaks to the rich, or build more jails, or should we be making public colleges and universities tuition free? 

There are many ways you can get involved and participate in this movement. And it's up to you to decide what actions will be most effective on your campus and in your community.

But the truth is, like every other great struggle in American history - workers' rights, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, environmental protection- we will only make gains if we are prepared to fight for them.

Working together, we can make public colleges and universities tuition free, and lower the oppressive burden of debt that afflicts far too many young people.

Thank you very much.

Categories: Latest News

What the Revival of Socialism in the US Means for the Labor Movement

Truthout - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 06:40

Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Shaun Richman are contributing writers to In These Times, as well as veterans of the labor and socialist movements. Both have worked for several labor unions, with Fletcher having served as a senior staffer in the national AFL-CIO and Richman as a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. Both came of age during different eras of left politics. In this conversation, the two writers and organizers examine what a revived socialist movement could mean for unions -- and the broader push for workers' rights and dignity.

Shaun Richman: We're in a political moment when tens of thousands of Americans are declaring themselves to be socialists and joining and paying dues to socialist organizations. It's not just Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), although DSA is growing the largest and the fastest. The entire alphabet soup of the Left, basically any socialist group that isn't a weirdo cult, is experiencing an influx of new members and activity. In the context of the "Organize or Die!" union push of the last 30 years, this is new and potentially a game-changer. There are now organized socialist groups that exist in significant numbers and are trying to figure out what their labor program should be, how they relate to a labor movement, and how they can be helpful. And it's not obvious what they should do. Bill, what are the opportunities and pitfalls, and what does this growth mean for labor?

Bill Fletcher: It is useful to contrast this growth with what took place in the Left during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Left, at that point, saw a project that was necessary within the working class. And so there was a whole wave of people, myself included, that went into workplaces, if we weren't already there, as a way of organizing to rebuild a vibrant labor movement and to lay the foundation for a working-class-based radical political movement that would, hopefully, result in the construction of a new political party of the socialist Left.

That's different from what I'm seeing right now, which is the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people.  That is fantastic!  But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It's not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question. Where and how does a reborn socialist movement build a base?

One of the tendencies that we began to see in the late 1980s and early 1990s was an orientation among many younger leftists that assumed that the work they did organizing the working class had to be done via staff positions: staff for unions and staff for workers centers. So the workplace-based organizing became less and less of a priority and activity.  We need to unpack this a bit.

One challenge of organizing workers currently is that most people out there -- even union members -- don't really understand what a union is. They understand them as some sort of abstraction. The way some budding left critics of unions talk, it's like, "Well why won't 'the unions' break with the Democratic party?" Or, "Why are they so loyal to the companies they represent?" This reflects a lack of understanding of how heavily regulated unions are and the structural trap that unions find themselves in.

Another problem is the one you note. I've been doing a lot of recruiting of new union organizers in the last decade. There are these moments that flare up when you see tremendous interest from new activists: maybe it's Wisconsin, maybe it's the Chicago teachers' strike. There was definitely a big influx of new organizers coming out of the 2008 Obama campaign. People had that lightbulb moment when they wanted to get more involved in social justice, and they decided to go straight for a staff job at a union.

Almost no one paused to ask how to stand in place and fight for a union at the job they were in. And one of the pitfalls of the staff model is, obviously, there just aren't that many staff jobs, and they're dwindling. The opportunity of an organized socialist movement is that it provides a different way to get involved and to do something at your workplace, or find a new workplace where you have comrades and you can maybe start pushing in the right direction and laying the seeds for labor's next uprising.

Left politics need to unite with workers -- and the lives and activities of workers. And there are different ways that that's going to happen. One aspect of that work is the building of unions.

But even when it comes to building unions -- if you think back on the work that the Left did in the 1930s, whether it was the communists, the Trotskyists or whatever -- the process of building those unions was a major priority of the Left. And cadres were made available to help to build unions. In addition, building a presence of the Left in the working class goes beyond the workplace and includes communities. That's what today's socialist left really needs to be thinking about.

I prefer to look at the 1920s. First of all, from a power perspective, they seem very analogous to our era. But there's also an element of optimism: If this is our era is the 1920s, what can we do to get to our 1934? 

There were really interesting projects during the 1920s socialist Left that helped change the environment and made the 1930's uprising possible. One is the Trade Union Education League (TUEL). They developed a smart way of addressing the problems of union structure -- how the craft model sometimes got in the way of solidarity. They also got past that earlier Wobbly thrust of just quitting the AFL to create new "perfect" organizations that would compete against and "defeat" the craft unions.

"Amalgamation" was the watchword, and the principle was that we can put structural rigidity aside while we figure out a model where every union that claims jurisdiction gets those members, as long as all members are fighting within the same collective bargaining framework. But the important thing is to go into the unions where the workers are, instead of being the perfect union hanging off to the side. "Go where the workers are," seems to be a pretty good and long-standing rule of socialist organizing.

They still wound up getting accused of being "dual unionists" by existing leadership, which felt threatened by these folks who were organizing as caucuses. Many were expelled from those unions. The peril of that sort of model -- which modern-day socialists fall into a bit too easily -- is succumbing to knee jerk oppositionalism. Without a real analysis of the structural, legal and organizing challenges to unions, you fall into the mindset of, "If only this person was in charge instead of that person," or, "If only these people weren't the ones on staff but these other people were." Then you're just "the opposition."

First of all, we've got at least 30 years of experience here, where just replacing folks at the top, or just replacing the staff with more "dedicated" people, is clearly not the breakthrough strategy. But more strategically, if DSA or if any of these groups are able to be painted as knee-jerk opposition caucus joiners, you could very quickly find yourself blacklisted or marginalized, and that would be a waste of this opportunity. Which is not to say don't ever engage in opposition (if you can win). But, it's telling how much people point to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), because it's the best example of where new leadership was needed. That new leadership organized the membership in a real and meaningful way and has improved the state of the union. But the fact that that's the example everyone talks about should tell you that it's the exception that proves the rule. 

There's an assumption implicit in what you were saying that I would challenge.  Based on my own experience, I can tell you that one does not have to be in direct opposition in order for the traditionalists or the pragmatists in the leadership of organized labor to red-bait or otherwise marginalize you.  We have had segments of the Left that decided to tail the union leadership in order to -- in their own view -- build alliances. In other cases, they may have hoped that, through building such a relationship, they would increase the opportunity to be in a position of influence and power.

On the one hand, you have the opposition caucuses. As you note, they can be very sectarian and unproductive. Although in cases like Teamsters for a Democratic Union(TDU) and the reform movement that took over the CTU, they can be really important. The challenge for leftists is that even in the absence of a reform caucus, to the extent that you're trying to push the envelope, even when you have absolute displays of loyalty, you still can be perceived as a threat. So people should not think, "Well I'm not going to be a sectarian ass, and therefore people will listen to me, I'll be able to serve a productive role." I wish it worked that easily.

I have argued for a long time that people on the Left can't treat the labor movement as a panacea nor as some sort of hideous creature. It's complicated. It is also a strong argument for why we need Left organizations rather than leftists relying only upon themselves as individuals.

Working for unions as staff is not for everybody and shouldn't be the default position. If you can do it, the pay and benefits will be good, you'll learn some stuff, but you also might hit a limit of what you can learn. The role of movement is to help you to figure out where the next smart place to go is.

Back to the TUEL, one thing they did is that they didn't just focus on where unions already existed, which -- like today -- was in only a handful of industries that they were able to hold onto. It was clear there were growth industries where workers had to be organized, but there weren't any unions that were seriously trying to organize -- the auto factories being the best example. So TUEL activists took jobs in those auto factories and focused on just getting the job, making friends, becoming trusted co-workers and showing shop floor leadership. All the while, they were puzzling out with each other what serious union organizing would look like in mass production factories. And they wound up being a very crucial base of cadre when the UAW came along in the 1930's.

So one of the exciting things about there being organized socialist groups is the idea of salting. When I was running the AFT's charter schools organizing program, I probably had a different take on this. Back then, I needed folks who were ideologically committed and willing to go work at a non-union charter school and help us organize it. An inside organizer makes a massive difference.

My wife salted a charter school, and she managed to organize the place in three weeks. But now that I'm not currently running any union organizing division, what I see more is that the members of these socialist organizations already have jobs in the industries that we know we need to organize but nobody currently knows how.

I'm sure there are a ton of IT workers and freelancers who are now card-carrying socialists. I think salting looks more like tapping into socialist membership networks on the job. Find each other, and get a book club together, start reading together, start meeting together, and start thinking what would workplace action look like. Don't model this on what the current unions look like, because however we're going to organize IT, it's never going to look like the UAW. The industry is just vastly more complicated by design.

The same model was implemented in various forms and on a different scale in the 1970s, but the Left as a whole was smaller then. Let's dissect this word "salting" a little bit further. There's salting that refers to sending people into workplaces in order to lay the foundation for new organizing of a union, and then there's salting in the sense of in-shop organizing that aims at playing a transformative role within existing unions.

When I went to work at a shipyard in the 1970s, there was already a union, but it was a very conservative union. With other people on the Left, we built a reform movement that aimed to change the power situation within that local. We need people who are prepared to go into workplaces where there's already organization. But we also need people who are going to be going into new places.

Here's where it gets more complicated. Much of what needs to be organized is very low-paid work. The entry-level rate at the shipyard was low, but it was still something that I could live on. Many people shy away from salting precisely because of this. It's not an obstacle, but it is a challenge.

Much of this depends on who is willing and able. If you're a footloose college senior who has that freedom and isn't tied down by a family or a mortgage, who can take a front-desk job at a non-union hotel, that's a special kind of help you can provide. But given just how much of the economy is currently unorganized, I think a lot of people are already in jobs that need to be organized. Again, I'm sure that there are tons of card-carrying socialists who work in IT. They shouldn't leave that job. They should stay and fight, and they can contribute tremendously by finding each other and by thinking about what are the actions, the concerted activity, that we could take together that can demonstrate some power and inspire more coworkers to join.

I became a teenage socialist in the 1990s. I only heard about that 1970s push to "go into industry" as a cautionary tale. What I heard was the Socialist Workers Party told all their members who had built careers as academics or as writers to go into industry -- basically upend your professional life. It kind of tore the party apart and left it as a tiny sect after what had been a fairly rich history of movement building.

And, yes, sacrifices will have to be made, but I do think that we have an opportunity just because of how disorganized the economy currently is. Many people are already in a job that needs to be organized, and just by talking, reading, thinking and planning small actions with comrades, they move the needle.

The role of organization becomes very important here -- specifically, the type of organization. One of the things about the Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s was that they had an analysis of strategic sectors of the economy -- mining, steel and auto -- that needed to be organized.

One of the central tasks of organized socialists, as opposed to individuals, is to really examine the economy and think about where we need to be, including organizing the unemployed and informal sector. Not just organizing unions, but how do you build a left presence in these sectors? Do we have to do it in a different way? Is this one of the reasons or one of the ways that we need to be thinking about workers centers, for example, or other organizational vehicles, as ways of penetrating sections of the workplace that we haven't been otherwise able to penetrate?

That takes us to one of the other left projects of the 1920s that we need a 21st century model for: the labor colleges that sprang up. I'm thinking of places like Brookwood Labor College in upstate New York, Work People's College in the Midwest and Commonwealth College down south. The model of the schools was, first of all, everyone was in the room: people from different industries, different unions, or non-union workers, people with different educational attainments. The point was to step back from the daily work and to evaluate -- with no sacred cows -- the law, the union structure and the industries.

Our current labor colleges are great. I'm a big fan of the University of Massachusetts Union Leadership and Activism (ULA) program for doing some of this, but it's a masters program so it's sort of inherently elitist. We need PhDs in the room with high school dropouts as equals, electricians in the room with non-union IT workers, teachers in the room as students. It shouldn't be tied to college credits, although if you can find a way to incorporate that, that's always helpful.

The way labor education is funded now makes it hard to not have sacred cows. The 1920s labor college leaders, like A.J. Muste and Kate Richards O'Hare, really drove a process of never simply accepting "it is what it is" as an answer to anything. They were crucial for getting past the abstraction of craft union structure versus pure industrial union, and coming up with newer models of worker representation and protest. They examined critical questions: How do we not let our picket lines get smashed? What if we locked ourselves in instead of letting ourselves get locked out?

As you noted, these conversations can be threatening to union leadership, but it's not like someone made a mistake. It's not like William Green and John L Lewis and Sidney Hillman all sat down at a table and took a vote on the best framework for collective bargaining. The combination of exclusive representation, the duty of fair representation, agency fee, and enterprise-level bargaining is the product of a series of historical accidents. We need to understand how this came about by accident, how this system worked, when and why it worked, and start to develop ideas about how to replace it. Increasingly, it's not working for us. Certainly it's not working for the non-union segment of the economy, which is most of it now.

The AFL-CIO went through a process of building a National Labor College(NLC), when John Sweeney took over as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. It was a controversial decision, because there were many labor academics and labor studies programs that felt threatened by the idea of what the NLC might mean for their respective programs. It was very unfortunate. That eventually calmed down.

There was the question of whether education was mainly going to be found at brick-and-mortar institutions that labor unions set up, like the NLC or the United Auto Workers' iconic site at Black Lake Michigan. Alternatively, there was the question of whether the education offered by unions would be through programs and initiatives that were getting out into the field and developing programs where the members were. Another question was whether it should be a BA and Masters, versus developing our own West Point where we would be training the upcoming 'generals' and 'colonels' of the movement. That discussion never came to fruition.  

Through cost overruns and several other problems -- including the split in the AFL-CIO, which led some unions that had split off to stop using the Labor College (apparently because they wanted it to collapse) -- the Labor College found itself in a crisis.

But there was also a lack of consensus at the leadership level as to what priority it should be and whether it was worth the expense. Leaders of affiliated unions, by and large, went along with Sweeney's proposal, but I'm not even sure that Trumka was all that enthusiastic about it. This lack of consensus, I have concluded, was the ultimate demise of the NLC.

All of the educational efforts that you're pointing to during the early part of the 20th century -- and to which I would add the Highlander Center -- were central in terms of offering advanced education for labor intellectuals. I use that term very broadly and do not mean just labor academics. These institutions helped to train and shape the thinking of people who would play major leadership roles in the new labor movement. At this point we need to look at the form and content that worker-centered, movement-building education should possess.  

Certainly, in the year 2017 it's folly to try to run labor education out of the unions. They're facing an existential threat from Janus. Nobody has an appetite to fund it. So it has to be independent. Is it done at the universities -- at UMass, Murphy, Rutgers and the rest? Yes, obviously, and all of those institutions are doing good work. Some are finding ways to grow in this moment and to bring in new revenue to do interesting programs. But there is still a need to build an institution of labor education that is independent and not based on a traditional tuition and credit model. Book clubs, like the Jacobin reading groups, seem like a really smart thing to do right now. All you have to do is find a library reading room, or somebody's living room, and buy or borrow the books. So it's fairly low investment to get started.

But those have to start getting connected to each other, so that the conversation that's happening in the Bronx gets connected to the conversation that's happening in Chicago and in Raleigh-Durham. But if you have maybe 100,000 card-carrying socialists putting money into a pot, you start to be able to develop something that possibly looks like the Socialist Party's Rand School, to go even further back in time.

Back to the 1920s, the third interesting project to me that cries out for a 21st century analogue is the International Labor Defense organization that was led by James P. Cannon. Back then, union leaders would get jailed on trumped-up charges of conspiracy, like inciting riots on picket lines. The infrastructure to raise money for bail and defense lawyers was a literal life saver. We're not yet facing those kinds of fights, thankfully, but folks lose their jobs in organizing all the time. And there's a lot of money that needs to be raised. The interesting question is what does an International Labor Defense look like in the GoFundMe era? The Silicon Valley capitalists have created the technological infrastructure that we can either use or steal. 

I've put out this report, Labor's Bill of Rights, which argues that we should be using more constitutional challenges to the laws that really restrict workers' activities, which will involve breaking the law. Look at the Jimmy Johns workers in the Twin Cities area who got fired for hand-billing about the fact that they could not take a sick day unless they found a coworker to replace them. The company's rule was come into work sick if you can't find someone to fill in for your shift. They put out leaflets making common cause with the customers. I would want to know if the people making my sandwich were possibly contagious. The activists got fired, and now we have a Circuit Court decision that says that they deserved to be fired because they were being disloyal to their employer.

There is a major black hole in free speech law around workers. We're going to need more fights like this, and I would point out that was an Industrial Workers of the World organizing effort, which suggests the value of outsider activist strategies and relatively small organizations that think differently and are nimble. But you can't ask somebody to take a risk like that unless you can offer them some sort of support, and again that's where fundraising for workers' defense as a socialist project would be huge. Folks are already doing this, but there's an opportunity to do it in a more organized manner, tap into social media and make it more visible.

There are actually two issues here. There's the question of organizing legal defense and the broader matter of strategy in the workplace around authoritarianism. It's conceivable that a 21st century version of International Labor Defense could be constituted. There are organizations that take on some cases, particularly around union democracy issues, like the Association for Union Democracy. The problem is that you will quickly encounter "donor fatigue." This is something that we see particularly in responses to disasters. People can be affected in the beginning, and then after a while they start getting tired. And so you have to be very careful about how you move such efforts. One should not assume that each and every injustice will result in a mass campaign. It's going to have to be very strategic. And that will mean that some people will get help, and other people won't. 

But the deeper strategic and programmatic issue is something that I think that organized labor and much of the left have largely abandoned. That is what Barbara Ehrenreich talked about back in 2000 and what Rand Wilson have been raising since the 1980s: the authoritarian nature of the non-union workplace. The fact is that workers give up their rights when they're walking into non-union workplaces. I am convinced that taking on that struggle would be electrifying for several reasons. One is the idea of being protected against wrongful termination means more than the current situation in the United States, where if one gets fired in a non-union workplace, one has few options other than trying to get unemployment compensation.  

"Just cause" dismissal means developing institutions, such as labor courts, as you have in much of the rest of the world. Now at the level of strategy, it's seemed to me for a long time that this is something that should be pursued, particularly in so-called "right to work" states. We should be advocates of rights at work and use that to flip the script. 

I agree, and we're in a moment when these notions are bubbling up -- at elite levels, at least. First of all, for any socialist book clubs that are starting out there, I would highly recommend Elizabeth Anderson's new book Private Government. It makes a really clear and fairly deep argument about why we don't even see how we give up our rights when we walk through the boss' door and why that needs to change. There was a write-up in The New Yorker this weekend, and she had a piece in Vox: It's getting out there. I included Just Cause as one of the ten parts of Labor's Bill of Rights, and I'm getting some interesting feedback about that.

Like what?

I had a conversation with the staff of a well-respected progressive in Congress, where they expressed interest in doing something as bold as introducing a Just Cause bill, particularly if it would spark state-level efforts. I heard that some of the alt-labor groups in California were thinking about it as a potential ballot initiative after we saw in November that progressive ballot initiatives win even when right-wing politicians win. When you put workers' rights and workers' pay on the ballot, workers are going to vote for that.

There are two bits of pushback that I get on this. One is folks say, people actually assume that they can't be fired for just about any reason, and they only find out after they lose the job. I'm not sure that that's the case. First of all we're seeing a lot of Nazis getting fired after they had their pictures taken at Charlottesville. We see people get fired for things they say on social media. But there's still that pushback that workers don't understand they don't have these rights. Well that seems like a project of popular left education, to make sure workers understand what their rights are (and aren't).

The other pushback is a feeling among a lot of union people that if every worker had job protections, why would workers form unions? And that's just a lack of imagination. If every worker in a state had just cause protection, and there was some sort of recourse to a labor court, or arbitration, then you have lots of workers who would understand the good sense of paying for representation. You have right now millions and millions of workers who would like to join a union tomorrow but can't, because they need to convince a majority of their coworkers to vote for it. But if there were just cause protections, I think there are tons of unions that could go out there and say, join us and we'll be there for you.

And then there are all these other things you get by being a part of the union, including, one would hope, some more popular education around economics and workers power. So it seems like a potential pathway back not only to worker power but to union power. And again we're in a moment when people are just starting to talk about it. So we should push on it, so yeah it's time that we joined Europe on this. 

Exactly. Not just Europe -- other parts of the world. The objection that you heard, I've been hearing since the 1980s, when I first got involved in the issue of wrongful termination. Trade unionists were saying, why would people join unions? As if that's the major obstacle that we face now. I mean, it's so absurd, so small-minded, that it almost doesn't deserve a response. But I think that your response is a very good one.

It gets back to having a structural critique. We should be looking at what is keeping us from growing into areas of the economy where we need to be, what is diminishing union power, and we need to think about breakthroughs. A lot of the breakthroughs have to come through changing the law, and breaking out of this model of NLRB-certified, enterprise-level bargaining. I'm not saying get rid of it, but it can't be our model for growth. We're not going to grow back to 33 percent union density through that model -- not with card check, not even with repealing Taft-Hartley. We're just not going to grow to the high-water mark of union density under a model collective bargaining centered around atomized workplaces.

We need something that gets us to have a voice in industry, and in entire sectors, all at once. And sectoral bargaining -- or sectoral rule-making, even -- is another idea I see bubbling up, also at more elite levels, in think tanks and labor colleges. But it is something that workers and members of socialist book clubs should be talking about too.

The pushback is that it's pie-in-the-sky when we had a triple-crown Democratic government and couldn't even get card check passed. But opportunities for change sometimes come at you faster than you expect. God forbid 20 million workers sat down at the job tomorrow and created the crisis that would actually get Congress to change our labor laws. What would we win? Card check, because that's the last idea we put on the table? We should be discussing ideas that are big, that are utopian, that seem hopeless. Otherwise, when the moment arises to actually make a gain, we're going to be caught flat-footed.

Absolutely. You know we have to be advancing new and exciting ideas. And one of the ideas that is important for organizers to appreciate and certainly for the left to appreciate, is that when people are actually inspired by visionary notions, they are capable of extraordinary accomplishments. When there is a lack of inspiration, something different happens, and that is that people tend to fall back into their everyday lives, and their everyday problems, and get held down, smothered by them. If we're attempting to build a new movement and going on the counter-offensive, we must ensure some level of inspiration. And that doesn't mean providing all the answers, it doesn't mean detailing the ultimate utopia. It means that we're laying out an idea about how change can happen and the difference that it actually can make.

I agree, and that might be a good note to end on. This moment presents an opportunity to gain some new ambition and to think a hell of a lot bigger than we've been thinking for decades now.

Categories: Latest News

Have Monsanto and the Biotech Industry Turned Natural Bt Pesticides Into GMO "Super Toxins"?

Truthout - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 06:30
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Is the supposed safety advantage of GMO crops over conventional chemical pesticides a mirage?

According to biotech lore, the Bt pesticides introduced into many GMO food crops are natural proteins whose toxic activity extends only to narrow groups of insect species. Therefore, says the industry, these pesticides can all be safely eaten, e.g. by humans.

This is not the interpretation we arrived at after our analysis of the documents accompanying the commercial approval of 23 typical Bt-containing GMO crops, however (see Latham et al., 2017, just published in the journal Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews).

In our publication, authored along with Madeleine Love and Angelika Hilbeck, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), we show that commercial GMO Bt toxins differ greatly from their natural precursors. These differences are important. They typically cause GMO Bt proteins to be more toxic. Worse, they also cause them to be active against many more species than natural forms of Bt toxins.

Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow, are the principal makers of GMO crops intended to kill pests. The vast majority of these GMO insecticidal crops, which include GMO corn, GMO soybeans, and GMO cotton, are engineered to contain a family of protein pesticides called Bt toxins. Such crops may contain up to six different Bt transgenes.

Bt toxins get their name from the bacterial species from which they are originally derived, Bacillus thuringiensis. Biotech seed companies and government officials commonly refer to GMO Bt toxins (which are also called Cry toxins) as "natural". Commonly also, they state that GMO versions are identical to the Bt toxins used in organic agriculture or in forestry.

But, as we found, GMO Bt toxins are clearly distinct from natural Bt toxins and those used in more traditional farming methods:

1. Whereas natural Bt toxins are insoluble crystals with complex structures built around a DNA molecule (see illustration), all GMO Bt toxins are soluble proteins (with no DNA).

2. Many GMO Bt toxins are truncated proteins.

3. Parts of Bt toxins are often combined to make hybrid GMO molecules that don’t exist in nature.

4. GMO Bt toxins often have added to them synthetic or unrelated protein molecules.

5. Some are mutated to replace specific amino acids.

6. And far from least, all GMO Bt proteins studied by us were additionally altered inside plant cells. It seems that the GMO crop plant itself invariably creates changes in Bt toxins.

Thus, not a single one of the 23 Bt commercial lines that we analyzed was identical to natural or historically used versions of Bt toxins. All had at least two of the above categories of alterations, but most had many more. To call GMO Bt proteins natural, as biotech companies standardly do, is therefore misleading and scientifically wrong.

Biological and Toxicological Significance

The biological meaning of these alterations is not discussed in the commercial applications that we studied. However, we found it can be inferred, at least in part, from a theoretical understanding of the toxicity of natural Bt proteins.

It is first necessary to note that the natural Bt molecules produced by B. thuringiensisare non-toxic crystals. The actual toxicologically active protein is a much smaller soluble fragment. To get from one to the other the crystal must first be eaten, then dissolved, then processed by the gut enzymes of a target organism, all in a precise sequence. The exact physiological and enzymatic conditions required for each step are particular to each toxin and quite rare in nature. This requirement for exacting conditions is, in large part, where the toxicological specificity of natural Bt toxins originates.

Once processed in this way, the much smaller but now activated toxin molecule attaches to receptors in the gut and makes holes in its membranes. This causes the victim to be digested from the inside by the contents its own gut, which includes B. thuringiensis.

This complex mechanism of toxicity can be conceptualised as the sequential removal of a series of inhibitory structures that act like the safety catch on a gun or the sheath on a sword. Processing prevents premature or inappropriate toxicological activity such as the making of holes in the bacteria’s own membranes.

The key inference from this understanding is that GMO developers, by solubilising or shortening Bt toxins, have removed some or all of the inhibitory structures that make natural versions safe for most organisms.

Thus, the standard theory of Bt toxin activation implies that, by creating Bt toxins that are more similar to the toxicologically active form, GMO developers are doing two things. First, they are making each Bt protein more active towards known target species. More worryingly, they are making them potentially hazardous towards an entirely new, though largely unknown, range of organisms. So, while the public explanation for using GMO Bt pesticides is that their toxicity is limited to a few species, this rationale is being undercut by placing them into GMO crops.

Theory only goes so far, however. There is another way to ascertain the effects of the changes made to commercial Bt toxins. That is to measure them. As we show, there are indeed published papers reporting that GMO Bt toxins are more toxic than natural Bt toxins. For example, co-author Angelika Hilbeck has shown that a Bt toxin called Cry1Ab is unexpectedly toxic to neuropteran insects (Hilbeck et al., 1998). US researchers separately showed that the GMO corn MON810 unexpectedly affected caddisflies, whereas non-GMO corn did not (Rosi-Marshall et al., 2007). Other researchers have shown that fewer than 14 pollen grains can kill swallowtail butterflies. These and other results strongly suggest that GMO Bt toxins can behave very differently than natural ones.

Patenting Supertoxins

A third way to determine the effects of changes made to Bt proteins is to find a patent in which the developer describes in detail the alterations they have made to a commercial Bt toxin, and the increase in potency that resulted from these alterations.

In US Patent No. 6,060,594 Monsanto describes how they made mutations in a natural Bt toxin called Cry3b that made this natural toxin into, in their own words, a "super toxin" (English et al., 2000). One such super toxin was subsequently introduced to make the commercial GMO corn MON863. Another was used to make GMO corn MON88017. The Bt toxin in MON863 was, according to the patent, 7.9-fold more active than the natural version. These enhanced toxins, claimed the patent, "have the combined advantages of increased insecticidal activity and concomitant broad spectrum activity."

This finding compellingly supports our contention that altered GMO toxins are more potent in their toxicity and effective against a broader range of species. But Monsanto curiously omitted this information when it applied for a regulatory exemption from EPA for the toxin in MON863. Instead, Monsanto argued that that the Bt protein in MON863 was toxicologically equivalent to the natural Bt protein precursor.

This is a resurfacing of the historic contradiction that has marked biotechnology since its inception. Claiming to be identical to old methods when safety is the issue and novel when the question is patents. It would surely be interesting to sit down EPA and the Patent Office together at the same table.

But that is still not all. As mentioned briefly above, all Bt toxins are further altered -- by the plants into which they have been introduced. This creates unique toxin molecules that differ even further from natural ones. The biological explanations for these alterations are not clear, they may be specific to individual transgene insertion events, or the cause may be biochemical processing of the Bt toxin inside plant cells. But whatever that explanation, these alterations also may enhance the toxicity of the Bt molecule or alter its range of affected organisms.

To understand this point better it is important to appreciate that all commercialized GMOs represent unique genetic events. Each event has been specifically selected for pesticidal effectiveness in the greenhouse of the developer from among thousands of other, presumably less effective, breeding lines. This selection step creates the probability that a commercial GMO will have unique and unexpected toxicological properties that are responsible for that effectiveness.

Implications and Inferences

Our analysis is of importance for many reasons. First, are the real world ecological implications. According to our estimations, a series of independent alterations are creating enhancements in Bt protein toxicity. If each individual enhancement gives rise to a many-fold increase in toxicity, which, according to industry data it often does, then the cumulative effect is likely to be very large.

(This is particularly so when the vast quantities of Bt toxins present in each GMO crop field are considered. Not only are Bt proteins present in every cell of each GMO plant, but stacked GMO crop varieties increasingly have many different Bt transgenes. It is easy to imagine that GMO Bt crops may be having large effects on agricultural ecosystems.)

Second, there is a lesson here surely for new generations of biotechnologies. What our paper shows is that government regulators across the globe have opted to assume that Bt toxins, no matter how much they have been altered, whether accidentally or on purpose, have a toxicological profile that is unchanged.

Such an interpretation is highly convenient for applicants wanting to roll out potent novel toxins, but it is useless for protecting public health and the environment. Such disregard of the scientific evidence, laid out in full by us for the first ever time, is part of an unfortunate wider pattern -- which we have been documenting -- of adoption by GMO regulators of industry-friendly theoretical frameworks and interpretations.

It is the question for our times. How to integrate science into decision-making but ensure it is applied rigorously and impartially and therefore in the public interest?

Categories: Latest News

Dispatch From the Front Lines of Puerto Rico in a Post-Maria World

Truthout - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 06:24

This piece was originally published by Latino Rebels on October 9, 2017. You can access the original story here.

One Day in the Life of a (Hurricane María) Survivor

Salinas, Puerto Rico—My husband Roland wakes me up to the tune of "no water today." I suspected as much when I noticed the low water pressure during my nighttime visit to the bathroom. I guess the electric generator that was powering the water pump ran out of diesel or gas or maybe it malfunctioned. It's been on for the past two weeks and presumably they're supposed to be used only for emergencies. Yesterday, Dr. Gerson Jiménez, the medical director at Guayama's hospital (the only hospital still operating in the municipality of 45,000 people and serves as a regional medical facility), said he's afraid his generators will malfunction any day now because they're only meant to operate for 72 hours at a time.

I thought things were bad without electricity. Now without water, it seems like life will be unbearable.

The weekend weather brings more rain. It's so hot and humid.

I wash up, using a cup of bottled water. I am using one of the few bottled waters we were able to buy at the local supermarket after, waiting hours in line a few days ago. In my "regular" life, I only use tap water after I filter it, using three different filters. But now the tap is dry. We stored water in buckets prior to the hurricane to use for the toilets. I had poured vinegar in each bucket, but now the water looks as if there are organisms growing in it.

I look through my clothes to see which pants are less dirty among the pants I'm using in this post-hurricane period. Fortunately, I have a lot of old underwear and even though some are a little small, now that I've lost a few pounds they fit again -- I guess being forced to be on a diet is one good thing about this hurricane-harried life.

I eat oatmeal with almond milk for breakfast. I made it last night by mixing the ingredients and leaving it in a glass bowl covered overnight. We've discovered that almond milk doesn't go bad from one day to the next. We stocked up on dry goods and canned food before the hurricane. I wonder what people who have more limited budgets have done. This week we heard that food rations are being handed out in long lines at the Salinas City Hall.

My plan for today is to get cash from my local co-op account because we are running very low on cash. Yesterday, we paid (a very reasonable price) to have the downed vegetation cleaned from the backyard. A few days after the hurricane, a group of neighbors opened up access to our street and removed uprooted trees. We made a seafood stew and handed them bowls and beverages in exchange for the neighborhood road cleanup. The two guys who cleaned out our backyard also started out as volunteers but now they are charging nominal fees to cut up the fallen tree trunks and branches with amazing talent and speed. Cash is needed to pay for almost everything, and the lines at banks, co-ops and other financial institutions are the longest I've ever seen. I noticed that the Banco Popular lines are especially long, even for their ATMs. My husband hasn't been able to use his debit card to withdraw any funds. One of the co-ops is working fairly well, but you can only withdraw up to $300 per day. The workers helping out with the cleanup and repairs to houses and cars need to be paid in cash on a daily basis, so for many people the line to withdraw funds is a daily chore.

It's raining fairly hard right now and the gutters look like small streams. I hope the Nigua River doesn't flood. At the co-op earlier today, I convinced the manager to allow me to withdraw two days' worth of funds. Walking to the car, I noticed that many of the small shops were closed. Maybe they ran out of fuel for electric generators or they didn't have generators in the first place. Many people do not own generators because they are pricey. I think about getting a snack at a local bakery, which is open, but then I remember that they only have white bread, processed "cheese food," ham or other cold cuts and no fruits or vegetables, so I change my mind.

On my way home, I stopped by the house of a Convivencia Ambiental (our environmental summer Camp) youth leader who told me that she has decided to leave Puerto Rico so that she can finish her last year of high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She decided this was her best option because she feels that even though the public schools are scheduled to reopen on October 16, the schools will be on a half-day schedule with likely no electricity because the school is currently being used as a shelter for people who lost or sustained damage to their homes. We talk about how rooftop solar units could be so beneficial at schools and other places that operate mostly during the day. Her mom asks me to draft a document ceding temporary custody to the family member that she'll be living with in Allentown. In fact, as a community lawyer, I've had several high school and college students ask me for help with paperwork and information about how to transfer to academic institutions in the States. Sadly, I think to myself, Hurricane María is contributing to Puerto Rico's on-going brain drain. Working-age people in general, and also people who require medical care, are leaving or getting ready to do so.

Since I don't have electricity, I look daily for a spot that has a working electric generator and I sit there with my computer to prepare the paperwork for members of my community.

The fumes and noise from diesel generators are a huge problem, especially at night.

When I get home each evening, I heat up some pre-made Indian packaged food that I had stocked up on before the hurricane. I use a small gas stove that my 86-year-old mother has kept in her home for years, "in case of emergency." I wonder what people without gas stoves are doing to eat a hot meal. I've heard that some people are scavenging and then burning the wood debris scattered by the storm, from houses and light poles and from who knows what, as fuel for cooking. With no water, the dirty dishes are starting to pile up. I don't own disposable plates because I keep plastic use to a minimum, and I'm trying to keep the water in the buckets to flush the toilet. Plus, I don't want to touch the water in the buckets because of the organisms growing in it. I think that maybe I can boil it, let it cool, and then use it to wash the dishes. But should I use the gas I have in my stove for that?

Roland is trying to figure out how to get the right front tire of his car filled or repaired. The roads are full of potholes and it is taking a toll on the tires and possibly on the car parts. He heads out to find a garage with an air compressor and then heads to work. He is only working in the afternoons because Guayama's courthouse was badly damaged. He and his colleagues are discussing the new logistics of handling felony cases in the small courthouse in Salinas. Half jokingly they pose the idea that perhaps they should interview their clients in their cars.

My sister, who works at a large pharmaceutical company, has not been able to work at the plant because of serious damage to the structure and the lack of electric power. She purchased a large electric generator for her home that she'll be installing as soon as she can locate an electrician and otherwise work out the logistics.

As I walk to my car, I see that my sister is in the process of bringing plastic buckets outside to collect rain-water for flushing her toilet. I tell my sister, "Bye, I got to run to an IDEBAJO meeting."

Life in the Aftermath of Hurricane María

Contributors: Ruth "Tata" Santiago, Hilda Lloréns, Carlos Garcia-Quijano and Catalina de Onís

About 85 percent of Puerto Rico remains without electric power, and full restoration is not expected for months. We applaud the urgent organizing efforts of Casa Pueblo and others to generate and distribute much-needed solar energy in the regions of Adjuntas, Utuado, and Jayuya. However, other areas, such as frontline communities in Salinas in the island's southern region, have not been reached by the various aid efforts. This must change.

Tata Santiago, a long-time member of the Iniciativa de Eco Desarrollo de Bahía de Jobos (IDEBAJO), who survived Hurricane María and who lives in Puerto Rico, shared the following information with Hilda Lloréns, who summarized the conversation with diaspora-IDEBAJO supporters in an October 6 email:

Right now, we (Ruth "Tata" Santiago and IDEBAJO) are trying to set up a command center in Salinas to get solar-powered lamps to folks and to hook up the El Coquí's community center's refrigerators to solar generators to store medicine and ice (ice is hard to find right now). Salinas and the southern part of PR has not received any aid as of today. The American Red Cross came to Salinas yesterday and set up a satellite antenna in the main square (plaza) for a few hours so that residents could make phone calls. AT&T and Claro have also been setting up antennas for a few hours each evening in Guayama's convention center. FEMA also went to the plaza to hand out forms for folks to make claims. People are living in dire conditions. When the night falls (and in PR night falls at 6pm this time of year), people are completely in the dark. Batteries (AA, AAA, etc.) are running out at the stores; there is no ice; people are having a hard time keeping medicine cool; people are living in parts of their houses that were not blown away by the storm; and gas is hard to come by. People are having a hard time just getting around, and those who have generators are hardly keeping the generators running because of lack of access to diesel.

Members and supporters of IDEBAJO are in the process of sending two solar-powered generators, small solar lamps, batteries, and wi-fi satellite devices to Salinas. For the past few days, we have been struggling to find ways to send these supplies to Salinas. (Costco doesn't have generators, and Home Depot and Lowe's do not deliver to Puerto Rico, while Amazon only delivers certain items.) These are essential resources for frontline communities grappling with the energy colonialism, which has been aggravated by Hurricanes Irma and María. The suffering and devastation that is happening is NOT caused just by "natural" disasters. The frequency and severity of the extreme weather events that hit the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and other areas this hurricane season are likely linked to anthropogenic global climate disruption, which burdens with disproportionate effects those communities that are ill-equipped to "bounce back," as resilience discourses would have it. These communities contribute very little to CO2 emissions but are bearing the brunt of the consequences fueled by our carbon-based economy.

To contextualize the precarious situation communities in Salinas and throughout the southeast find themselves in, we must be cognizant that this region has been known in Puerto Rico as the "hunger route." In Salinas, 60.6% of the population lives in poverty with a median household income of $15, 510. According to the 2010 US Census, 17 percent of people in the region self-identified as black, a percentage well above the 12.4 national average. The low-income communities in the Jobos Bay, located between Salinas and Guayama, have long suffered from the pollution generated by two electricity-generating power plants as well as other industries located in their communities. These communities consume less of the energy that is produced in their backyards because they can't afford the electricity bills, and yet they pay a high price with their health and the health of their environments. They are the most affected, and as we are witnessing in the aftermath of hurricane María, the last to receive aid when they need it most.

Because these are frontline communities, they have been at the forefront of resisting injustice and devising solutions to the environmental problems that affect them. For instance, South Against Pollution, Comité Diálogo Ambiental, and IDEBAJO were at the forefront of the fight against the government-private industry plan to build a 700-million dollar AES coal-power plant on a wetland adjacent to the Jobos Bay dating back to 1998. Similarly, Comité Diálogo Ambiental has been at the forefront of the fight against the irresponsible handling and disposal of the toxic coal-ash produced at AES, as well as trying to stop the Aguirre Offshore Gasport Project, a subsea liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline proposed in the Jobos Bay. The group has legally challenged smaller-scale threats to the health of coastal environments, such as mangrove forests deforestation for urban development. Looking for solutions and alternatives to dirty energy, IDEBAJO has been trying to bring the solar project Coquí Solar to fruition for nearly a decade. They work with precious few resources and rely on volunteer work in their struggle to safeguard their environment and to provide a healthier life for current and future generations.

While offers by Elon Musk to reimagine Puerto Rico's energy system with solar and batteries to power the entire island might be appealing for some, frontline communities must play a central role in the transformation of Puerto Rico's energy system, rather than relying on outsiders who stand to profit from disaster capitalism and green capitalism in these trying times. To transition otherwise only will perpetuate past exploitation. Thus, it is crucial that communities most affected receive the support for which they are asking to advance their own community-controlled self-determination. At the moment, they have determined that the most pressing need involves establishing a solar-powered community-level energy grid that can enable them to self-organize without depending completely on central government recovery efforts.

If you'd like to donate to IDEBAJO's solar energy fundraiser, please contribute here. Also, consider mailing small solar lamps, batteries, and Wi-Fi satellite devices. The Salinas post office is now open.

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Categories: Latest News

Dreamer: Trump's Deal to Preserve DACA but Escalate Deportations Is a "Toxic Deal We Cannot Accept"

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00

President Trump said Sunday he will not restore DACA -- the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- that protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation -- unless lawmakers agree to expand the wall on the US-Mexico border and move to keep out thousands of children fleeing gang violence in Central America. We get response from Cesar Vargas, who is himself a DACA recipient. He's the co-director of DREAM Action Coalition and New York state's first openly undocumented attorney.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

As Deadly Wildfires Rage in California, a Look at How Global Warming Fuels Decades of Forest Fires

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00

In California, powerful winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling massive wildfires. A state of emergency has been declared in northern areas as the fires have left at least 17 people dead, destroying whole neighborhoods and forcing 20,000 people to evacuate their homes. The wildfires come after the US Forest Service warned last year that an unprecedented 5-year drought led to the deaths of more than 100 million trees in California, setting the stage for massive fires. Climate scientists believe human-caused global warming played a major role in the drought. We speak with Park Williams, bioclimatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of a 2016 report showing that global warming is responsible for nearly half of the forest area burned in the western United States over the past three decades.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

The Corporate Criminals

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

"Partisan" Gerrymandering Is Still About Race

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00

The Wisconsin voting rights case before the Supreme Court has been cast as the definitive test of whether partisan gerrymandering is permitted by the Constitution. But a closer look at the case and others like it shows that race remains an integral element of redistricting disputes, even when the intent of those involved was to give one party an advantage.

Wisconsin activists display a sign decrying the 2013 US Supreme Court decision that struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: Joe Brusky)

The Wisconsin voting rights case before the Supreme Court has been cast as the definitive test of whether partisan gerrymandering is permitted by the Constitution. But a closer look at the case and others like it shows that race remains an integral element of redistricting disputes, even when the intent of those involved was to give one party an advantage.

Consider Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case that was argued last week before the nation's highest court.

During its journey through the legal system, the case has turned on whether Republicans secured an impermissible advantage over Democrats in the way Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature redrew district lines after the 2010 census.

But because of the deep racial divides that pervade American politics, the story is not that simple.

Wisconsin's Democratic Party includes a substantial number of African-American and Latino voters, particularly in cities like Milwaukee. When you look more closely at redistricting plans drawn in Wisconsin and elsewhere, you see that both parties have improved their statewide prospects by diminishing the political power of minority voters.

As they fight in court over lines drawn after the 2010 census, Democrats and Republicans alike are anxiously waiting to see what the decision in the Wisconsin case will let them do after the 2020 census.

Michael Li, senior counsel at the Democracy Program at New York's Brennan Center, said the ruling carries extra weight because we can expect the most sophisticated chicanery yet.

"I'm worried about a record level of gamesmanship in 2021," said Li. "There could be an unprecedented redistricting war, and both sides are going into it fully armed."

Paul Smith, the attorney presenting oral arguments on behalf of the voters challenging the Wisconsin map, echoed this sentiment.

"What the court needs to know is it's -- this is a cusp of a really serious, more serious problem," Smith told the justices. As computing power and data for redistricting continue to improve, he said, "you're going to have a festival of copycat gerrymandering the likes of which this country has never seen."

While many voters would be affected by such a festival, not all voters would be affected equally.

The record shows that the reliably Democratic voters in communities of color are crucial chess pieces in the partisan game that is redistricting. Republicans often benefit from packing such voters into districts, making other districts safer for Republican candidates. Conversely, a state's Democratic Party can benefit if it divides communities of color among many districts, giving each a reliable majority of voters who will support the party's candidates. This technique, known as "cracking" in map drawers' argot, often harms minorities, voters who might have greater clout if they were kept in a single district. In some cases it has proved politically expedient for the party drawing the lines to both crack and pack minority voters.

The Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder largely ended prior review of district lines by the Justice Department. That, along with rapidly improving technology that makes it ever easier to hide manipulation of communities of color for partisan gain, and the influx of massive amounts of dark money into redistricting, have put some of the voting power of minorities in jeopardy.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court decision in Gill, it will allow judges to evaluate, and possibly reject, redistricting maps based on a mathematical formula intended to identify partisan gerrymandering. It could offer those suing on behalf of minority voters a tool for fighting racial discrimination that wouldn't require the high standard of proof and commitment of resources a typical Voting Rights Act case would, said Leah Aden, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Upholding the lower court ruling in Gill would also reduce the incentive for political parties to use perverse (some would say cynical) interpretations of the Voting Rights Act and Constitution as a way to defend or attack partisan maps, Aden said. In Wisconsin, and also in Texas and North Carolina, gerrymandered maps have been defended by parties with an argument Aden called "The VRA Made Me Do It."

Gill v. Whitford features a novel variation of this tactic. A brief filed by the Republican Party contends that using the suggested mathematical formula to flag districts drawn for partisan reasons would violate the Voting Rights Act because districts with a majority of minority voters -- Democratic districts -- could get flagged as unfairly drawn.

At times, Democrats have also invoked the Voting Rights Act for partisan reasons, according to Smith, the attorney who argued the Democrats' side in Gill v. Whitford. The formula endorsed by the lower courts would allow Democrats to challenge redistricting lines without classifying their objections as a defense of minority voting rights, Smith said during oral arguments. This would reserve the important tools for protecting minority voting rights for cases in which they are legitimately needed.

Let's start with Wisconsin. It may indeed be a partisan gerrymander, but it still illustrates the complex intersection of race and politics.

Manipulating a map to move around Wisconsin Democrats also means manipulating a map to move around Wisconsin voters who are not white, said Malia Jones, an applied demographer at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Wisconsin is one of the most segregated states in the nation," Jones said. "When we are talking about geography we are also talking about race."

One example can be seen in an assembly district on the western edge of Milwaukee, a city infamous for its near-perfect division between downtown African-American neighborhoods and white affluent suburbs. In an unprecedented move, Republican map drawers crossed the Milwaukee County line to loop 60 percent minority city neighborhoods into a sprawling suburban district that is, after the redistricting, 87 percent white, according to a ProPublica analysis.

In Highly Segregated Areas Like Milwaukee, Race Always Plays a Factor in Redistricting

This is, in fact, a dilution of Democratic voting power. But it also places thousands of African-American and Latino citizens in a heavily white district where they have little hope of electing a candidate who will represent their interests.  

"Clearly there is an impact on minority populations," Jones said.

As in many gerrymandering cases, the attorneys defending the state's redistricting have argued that the map reflects, among other considerations, an effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act and protect minority voters.

The first test of the Wisconsin map was a successful challenge arguing racial discrimination. In Baldus v. Brennan, federal judges ruled that two state assembly districts in the Latino area of Milwaukee were an example of cracking.

Depositions given by the Republican map drawers as part of the case show that this was hardly an accident. They sought input from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, but then disregarded it in order to limit consideration of Latino voters to two assembly districts and keep the rest of the map intact.

Emails surfaced showing the map drawers had worked with a political science professor in Oklahoma to manipulate the difference between the number of voting-age Latino residents in a district and the number who are citizens and eligible to vote.

While the court found that Latino voters' rights had been violated, they only changed the two assembly districts.

The outcome of Gill comes at a time when minority voters are facing obstacles they haven't faced in decades.

Before 2013, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required states and municipalities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to submit redistricting plans to the Department of Justice for review by attorneys, investigators, data analysts and sometimes political scientists.

The Department of Justice could reject the plan, preventing the proposed districts from ever being used in an election. The state or municipality could challenge the decision in federal court, but would be up against the formidable resources of the department.

Though it was imperfect, "there's no doubt preclearance had a significant deterrent effect," said John Powers, a former Section 5 analyst at the agency who now works for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It also forced jurisdictions to report changes to districts, Powers said. While a change to a congressional district is unlikely to go unnoticed, a change at the local level might -- even though those lines can have a huge impact on citizens' lives. "Now, they can make changes and it's possible no one will even know."

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court ended many protections of the law. Though Section 5 is still in place, nearly all jurisdictions once subject to preclearance are no longer.

States and other jurisdictions did not even wait for the next census to get to work on re-engineering their political maps. The state of Georgia and municipalities in Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas drew new lines, prompting immediate lawsuits. All would have required pre-approval before the Shelby ruling.

For example, Georgia currently faces a lawsuit from the NAACP over two changes in their mid-decade redistricting. Ahead of the 2016 election, legislators shifted over a thousand African-American and Hispanic voters out of Georgia House District 105, one of the most contested seats in the state, to a majority-white neighboring district with an uncontested seat. The Republican incumbent in District 105 won by fewer than 250 votes.

Republicans were "trying to shore up districts that were too close for comfort by moving around African-Americans," said Li.

Georgia's Mid-Decade Redistricting Plan Moved Around Minority Voters to Secure a Republican Seat

The effective end of preclearance shifted the burden of policing the system from the government to privately funded lawsuits, and it allowed contested maps to come into effect while those costly lawsuits wended their way through the courts -- often, for years.

Anita Earls, an attorney who has handled many redistricting lawsuits -- including the ongoing suit in North Carolina -- said even simple cases that do not go to trial can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A recent lawsuit over city council redistricting in Pasadena, Texas, cost plaintiffs over a million dollars. Larger cases, like North Carolina House and Senate redistricting, can run up legal bills of millions of dollars and take many years. In some cases, the defendants can eventually be compelled by the court to pay the plaintiffs' legal bills, but plaintiffs are required to front the money. Reimbursements are by no means guaranteed.

Earls said her group, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has had to turn down requests for help.

"There are a lot of different cases where we have to tell them we don't have money and staff," she said. "There are places where people end up just kind of living with the unfair plan."

Redistricting lawsuits also take time -- often years -- a phenomenon that supporters of the Whitford plaintiffs hope will be ameliorated by removing the complication of challenging districts one at a time.

While the court challenges drag on, interim lines often remain in effect as votes are cast. North Carolina has gone through three election cycles using state legislative lines later found to be discriminatory.

In 2017, 19 North Carolina House Districts Were Overturned for Packing Black Voters

When party operatives and legislators draw maps, they are aware that it could take years to overturn a redistricting plan, and intentionally use delaying tactics to make sure elections take place under the most favorable circumstances, Earls said.

In North Carolina, she said, state officials "at every step of the way tried to delay litigation, did everything they could to stretch this out."

As ProPublica has previously reported, donors who supported the racially gerrymandered plan even used a front group to manipulate state judicial elections, so as to ensure redistricting cases would be heard by a Republican panel of judges.

Pressure on state judges further delayed the legal process, forcing the litigants contesting North Carolina's redistricting plan to turn to the federal courts, Earls said.

Such delays can pay political dividends. During the years North Carolina's maps were being challenged in court, the legislature under the disputed map passed laws that substantially affected African Americans. Lawmakers imposed stricter rules for voter ID and eliminated the state's earned income tax credit, a provision that lowers the taxes paid by the poorest residents.

"North Carolina has had a crazy few years in terms of legislation," said Li of the Brennan Center. "You can't turn back the clock, what's happened has happened."

While citizen groups struggle to find resources to mount redistricting battles, state legislators use money from the state treasury to defend their redistricting maps. Regardless of the outcome, the taxpayers, not the political parties or campaign committees, end up on the hook for legal costs.

North Carolina's redistricting saga also illustrates the false distinction between race and politics that permeates redistricting.

In their secret map-drawing process, Republican operatives were explicit about their plan to achieve their desired political outcome: a "10-3" map that had 10 safe Republican congressional districts with only three for Democrats, a big change for a state that at the time had a delegation with seven Democrats and six Republicans.

And they were also pretty explicit -- at least to each other -- about how they planned to achieve their desired party breakdown.

In an email circulating two proposed maps, Tom Hofeller, a Republican redistricting expert sent in by the national Republican Party wrote that both "incorporate all the significant concentrations of minority voters in the northeast into the first district."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court affirmed lower court decisions that found North Carolina's congressional and state legislative maps discriminated against minority voters, specifically by packing minorities into a small number of districts to achieve the maximum number of Republican-friendly seats.

Required to draw new maps, Republican state party leadership announced they would achieve the same 10-3 congressional delegation breakdown, and the same healthy majority in the state legislature, without looking at race at all.

"Race was not among the criteria we considered when we drew these maps," David Lewis, the Republican member of the state assembly who served as the redistricting point person, told the Associated Press.

Hofeller, the same consultant who drew the original maps, would redraw the maps only looking at political data, with an eye to protecting incumbents elected under previous maps, Lewis said.

In other words, a strictly partisan gerrymander.

But the groups who originally sued against the racially gerrymandered maps said the new maps had simply become discriminatory against African-American voters elsewhere in the state. Once again, they asked the courts to strike those maps down. The case is pending.

"You can't comply with Voting Rights Act and avoid racial bias by simply ignoring race altogether," said Bob Hope, Executive Director of Democracy NC.

***

Some states have been found to violate the civil rights of minority voters during multiple redistricting cycles. Texas' district lines -- drawn by both Republican and Democrat-controlled legislatures -- have been thrown out on racial-discrimination grounds for nearly 30 years -- during the redistricting of the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s.

Texas Is No Stranger to Overturned Gerrymanders

Emails between those who drew the maps in 2010 show intentional exploitation of Hispanic voters to achieve partisan goals.

In a series of emails between map drawers, they discuss a phenomenon called "OHRVS," an acronym which stands for Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength. That acronym was defined by Eric Opiela, a Republican party operative, as "a measure of how Hispanic, and Republican at the same time we can make a particular census block."

By substituting groups of Hispanic voters with low voter turnout for those with high turnout, Republicans were able to draw hypothetical maps that would create seemingly impossible political districts. One example is a 67 percent Hispanic congressional district that the map drawers projected would nonetheless likely have been won by John McCain or former Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas, which in the 1990s was run by Democrats, also contradicts the notion that Democratic party interests necessarily align with those of minority voters, Aden said.

"In current politics Republicans dominate state legislatures, so more recently it's Republicans that have been accused of undermining the redistricting process," she said, but before this recent turn, districts in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi drawn by Democrat-controlled legislatures were found to be discriminatory.

***

Though scrutiny of statewide partisan redistricting (one of Gill's possible outcomes) could be a useful tool to keep state parties from going overboard -- and also to fight racial gerrymandering -- it cannot detect the subtleties of racial gerrymandering like those that took place in Georgia and Wisconsin.

Those gerrymanders will still have to be challenged the old-fashioned way, and in order to do that, challengers will need access to information about how decisions were made in drawing maps.

But transparency in redistricting is the exception, not the rule.

One thing the states we reviewed have in common is that the public map-drawing process was largely a charade. Emails and documents that subsequently emerged showed the real drawing was done behind closed doors by party operatives and consultants.

In Wisconsin, for instance, the maps were drawn at a law firm associated with the Republican Party, and vetted by the Republican National Committee before anyone in the general public was even allowed to see them.

In North Carolina, the maps were also drawn at a non-government site and a wealthy donor was allowed to see drafts and offer input.

In Texas, Republicans in the state legislature turned to consultants operating in secret.

As more donor money flows into the process and mapmaking tools get more sophisticated, the importance of map drawing in the public eye will only become more important, said the Brennan Center's Li.

Regardless of the outcome of Gill v. Whitford, experts say it will be important for the public to have a detailed picture of the redistricting process. That goal, they say, can only be achieved when the map drawing process is truly public.

"If communities aren't being heard, or shut out, if a redistricting plan is rammed through or rushed," Aden said, "That is a step that needs to be exposed."

Map Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures, The Brennan Center, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia General Assembly

Categories: Latest News

Vulture Funds Prey on the Most Vulnerable: It's Time to Cancel Puerto Rico's Debt

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00

Puerto Rico's billions upon billions in debt is essentially unpayable following the extensive damage caused by recent hurricanes Irma and Maria, says Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change. Westin discusses how hedge fund managers are glorified debt collectors, but also how the Hedge Clippers campaign is fighting back.

Carmen Cintron Torres takes a break from cleaning debris in front of her home more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 7, 2017, in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 81st in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change. Focusing on Puerto Rico, Westin discusses how hedge fund managers are glorified debt collectors, but also how the Hedge Clippers campaign is fighting back.

Sarah Jaffe: We are starting out with the discovery this week of the person behind the hedge fund that owns a whole bunch of Puerto Rico's debt. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jonathan Westin: [Seth] Klarman is the hedge fund manager … [Klarman] is generally seen as kind of a "progressive" Wall Street guy, but has hid himself in very intentional ways from being discovered as one of the biggest bond-holders of Puerto Rican debt. The way the debt was acquired by many of these hedge fund managers was they bought it for cents on the dollar when they took over debt from Puerto Rico, and are now trying to extract as much as possible out of the island to pay that debt back, even though they bought it for cents on the dollar.

It is almost like the people who buy bad student loan debt. Or bad credit card debt.

Yes. I mean, they are predators. That is really what this is. There is a reason they are called vulture funds; it is because they prey on very downtrodden folks. They buy up debt from places that most people believe they won't be able to recover [their money], but then they do everything in their power to extract blood from a stone.

How did the news that this was the firm that owned the debt come out?

Honestly, one of the groups that has been working the most on the Puerto Rican debt crisis is a group here in New York, based out of Buffalo -- Kevin Connor and LittleSis.org have done lots of work in discovering the folks behind a lot of the things that are happening in this country. Hence, the name LittleSis, the opposite of Big Brother. They were digging on who were the owners of this Puerto Rican debt because so many times in a lot of these cases -- this is just like Wall Street tradecraft -- they don't want to be known for what they are doing, so they hide themselves in multiple shell corporations. Kevin and his team dug and dug and dug and found this person through random, obscure lawsuit documents that were filed in the debt crisis. They just unravelled the layers and discovered Klarman.

There is a reason they are called vulture funds; it is because they prey on very downtrodden folks.

Then, David Dayen from The Intercept confirmed it. I think it was a mixture of really great investigative work done by LittleSis and really great reporting by David Dayen, who's been covering this and has been covering lots of the financial crisis and aftermath, to bring it to light.

You and a bunch of other folks have been doing work around hedge funds as the Hedge Clippers. What does this mean, discovering who owns Puerto Rico's debt, for Hedge Clippers' work?

It just confirms, for us, who are these people behind so much of -- not only the crisis in Puerto Rico -- but so much of the crisis in this country and around the world? Puerto Rico is not the only instance where hedge fund managers have gobbled up debt. They have done it in Argentina. They have done it in Greece. They have done it in many other places.

It lifts up a person we should now focus our attention on, which we are glad to do. A lot of the Hedge Clippers strategy has been to illuminate many of these hedge fund managers and all the evil they are doing across the world -- going to their homes, going to fundraisers and galas that they are participating in -- to expose them. I think many times, they do so much of their work behind the scenes and they don't want to be exposed. It is our job to make sure that people in this world know who the people are that are impoverishing entire countries and nations.

It is fascinating when you put it that way. That a small group of individuals is impoverishing entire nations.

Yes, a small group of white men in New York, Connecticut, etc. are impoverishing nations.

We are sitting in New York, many, many miles away from Puerto Rico, but you are the director of a community organization that has a lot of Puerto Rican members who are feeling this very personally right now.

Yes. We have a heavily Puerto Rican membership here in New York. Folks from the diaspora. A lot of folks have moved up here over several decades, but more recently, there has been a lot of Puerto Rican outflow from the island because of the debt crisis and because of the diminishing services. Then, obviously, you couple on top of that Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island and wiped everything out. They are in a huge economic crisis and, obviously, our members -- my family in particular -- we have family who live on the island, we feel it. This is really in our bones, what happened on the island.

We have a lot of New Yorkers … Look at even Governor Cuomo and [Mayor] Bill de Blasio and … Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is the first Puerto Rican speaker of the city council, out there advocating heavily on behalf of Puerto Rico. As New Yorkers, we feel this. There are so many connections to the island and so much of New York culture is derived from Puerto Rican culture. It is something that hits home for all of us.

Talk a little bit more about the Hedge Clippers strategy and the work that your members have done around different targets over the last couple of years.

One of the key strategies in New York to really push back on the hedge fund managers that were buying up tons and tons of Puerto Rican debt, was to lift up how New York City pension funds were invested with the same hedge fund managers impoverishing an entire island of folks down in Puerto Rico. We did a number of press conferences and rallies calling for divestment from the hedge funds, and successfully were able to get the City of New York to move pension funds completely out of these hedge funds and really send a really sharp message to hedge funds that you can't go out in your day job and impoverish an entire island of millions of people while taking our tax dollars to do it. We were able to move that money out of these hedge funds.

There have been some pretty pointed fights with a couple of other particular hedge fund managers around New York around a bunch of different issues. Do you want to talk about any particular others?

One of the most recent fights we have had is with a hedge fund manager from Third Point called Dan Loeb. He spends a lot of his time as an activist investor in buying up shares in companies and forcing the companies to essentially just pay him a whole bunch of money, which is really his strategy. But in his leisure activities, he is a racist. He takes to Facebook, and on multiple occasions, has made racist comments about a number of people, most recently the minority leader in the New York State Senate [Andrea Stewart-Cousins], essentially saying that she was worse than the Ku Klux Klan and has said many a number of racist things.

You can't go out in your day job and impoverish an entire island of millions of people while taking our tax dollars to do it.

In his day job, he is screwing over people of color by sucking money out of companies that should go to workers and wages, and then he is spouting racist things on Facebook. We have done a lot of work to expose him. He is also the chair of the Success Academy Charter Schools, which is a very controversial chain of charter schools here in New York that is pushing for the privatization of the New York City Public School System.

And that likes to promote how good it is doing for kids of color in New York City.

Yes, they like to promote what they are doing for kids of color while at the same time having enormous suspension rates for kids of color and pushing out kids of color that are struggling, and essentially treating them as though they are disposable.

Have you had any run-ins or work around Robert Mercer?

Yes. We have done a bit of work within Hedge Clippers and with Make the Road New York looking at Robert Mercer and how he is spending a lot of his money to essentially push anti-immigrant policies across the country. He is based on Long Island. Renaissance Technologies, which is his hedge fund, is based out there. He was Trump's biggest backer. He and his daughter were seen as very influential in hand-picking the cabinet of Trump's administration, including Steve Bannon, who [was] the lead racist in charge.

If there was one person that was bankrolling the white supremacist movement in this country, it is Robert Mercer.

It is interesting, too, because all of these people live in New York and Connecticut. So much for the idea that racism is in one part of the country.

Yes.

Back to the Puerto Rico question. Trump mentioned the idea of forgiving Puerto Rico's debt the other day. Of course, his people immediately started to walk it back, but does that give you an opening to press? Especially combining that with now knowing who holds the debt?

Yes. I think Trump has validated many of our positions, which is the debt is gone. It washed away with the hurricane. It is unpayable. We should not pay it and we should force them to cancel the debt. The hedge fund managers that are trying to suck blood out of the island should be forced into cancellation of this debt because there is no way to pay it and, frankly, it is gone.

It is interesting that debt gets moralized in these ways. Like, "How dare Puerto Rico not pay its debts? How dare Greece not pay its debts?" But especially when you are buying debt as a speculator for pennies on the dollar, you are doing so with the assumption that there is a huge amount of risk baked into that, that you will not make your money back.

Essentially, they are glorified debt collectors. That is what the hedge fund managers are acting as. In many cases, they are the ones that hiked up all the spending and borrowing. They created the debt, and frankly, there is no reason Puerto Rico should pay it back. That is part of what Trump was talking about when he was talking about cancelling the debt.

If there was one person that was bankrolling the white supremacist movement in this country, it is Robert Mercer.

I actually think there are a lot of people in this country that can sympathize with the huge amounts of debt that are piling up, and the question of, "Where is all of this money going in our country and in our economy, and frankly, globally?" It is a continuing push and consolidation of all of the wealth and capital in this country going to folks like these hedge fund managers, while everyday Americans are struggling and having to rely on debt to live. This is everyday America: "I am able to pay my rent and water bills by living on credit cards. I am able to send my kid to college by borrowing tons and tons of money." So much of how we live now is debt created by Wall Street.

In this case, it is an entire island and country that they have impoverished. I think we are now seeing the tragic ramifications in a post-Hurricane Maria world. The only way they are going to get back on their feet is with heavy investments into the infrastructure of Puerto Rico and not putting that money into the pockets of hedge fund managers that are trying to collect immoral debts.

Are there any actions planned for the next couple of weeks?

Yes, we are taking hundreds of folks from the diaspora, some folks from Puerto Rico to Washington to demand the cancellation of the debt, to really force the president to live up to his own words. We are going to be looking at some of our new-found creditors, specifically Klarman, and looking to do a series of actions around his role in the debt crisis. There are a number of actions we are looking to take to really force the issue that if the island is going to recover, there is no way they can pay this debt and they shouldn't.

How can people keep up with you and Hedge Clippers and New York Communities for Change and perhaps join any of these actions or put pressure on people?

HedgeClippers.org, there is tons and tons of info on the people that hold Puerto Rican debt and the predators and the hedge fund managers and who they are. NYCC, they can follow New York Communities for Change on Facebook. We post a lot of our events on Facebook and we will be doing a lot of work over the next few weeks on this debt crisis, so they can follow us there, too.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Categories: Latest News

In Iran and North Korea, Trump Is Playing With Nuclear Fire

Truthout - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 21:00

Donald Trump's bombastic and frightening threats against North Korea and Iran may portend a catastrophic attack that could impact the entire world. We must pressure the White House and Congress members alike, and hope that cooler heads prevail.

Iranian protesters hold banners and shout slogans during an anti-US protest after Donald Trump's UN speech against Iran, at the Tehran University campus in Tehran, Iran, on September 22, 2017. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which spearheaded a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The significance of this award cannot be underestimated.

Donald Trump's bombastic and frightening threats against North Korea and Iran may portend a catastrophic attack that could impact the entire world.

The US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing 210,000 people. During the week following the bombings, thousands of survivors experienced a unique combination of symptoms, Susan Southard wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Their hair fell out in large clumps, their wounds secreted extreme amounts of pus, and their gums swelled and bled. Purple spots appeared on their bodies, signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin. Infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering.

In the face of Trump's nuclear threats, the danger the world faces is immeasurable.

Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons

On July 7, more than 120 countries approved the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires ratifying countries "never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." The treaty also prohibits the transfer of, use of, or threat to use nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.

To read more stories like this, visit Human Rights and Global Wrongs.

Fifty-three countries officially signed the treaty, and three have already ratified it, which makes them parties to the accord. Ninety days after 50 countries ratify it, the treaty will enter into force.

However, the five original nuclear-armed countries -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- boycotted the treaty negotiations and the voting. North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India, which also have nuclear weapons, refrained from participating in the final vote as well. In October 2016, during negotiations, North Korea had voted for the treaty.

The State Department issued a statement saying, "The United States does not support and will not sign the [treaty]."

Trump Threatens to Blow Up the Iran Deal

Meanwhile, Trump is moving the world closer to nuclear war, threatening North Korea with destruction and attempting to blow up the nuclear deal with Iran. The day before the new treaty was concluded, Trump threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea if it attacked; that amounted to a threat to commit genocide.

Peace prize historian Oeivind Stenersen said the Nobel committee intended "to send a signal to North Korea and the US that they need to go into negotiations. The prize is also coded to support the 2015 Iran nuclear deal."

The Iran deal is embodied in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It rescinded the punishing US and international sanctions on Iran, amounting to billions of dollars of relief. In return, Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program.

Under the US Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president must determine every 90 days whether Iran remains in compliance with the JCPOA and whether it still serves US interests. The next 90-day period ends on October 15. Trump will reportedly refuse to certify that Iran is compliant with the agreement on October 12, in spite of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency's finding that Iran is in compliance.

If Trump refuses to certify that Iran is compliant with the JCPOA or determines the agreement is not in the national interest, Congress will then have 60 days to act. If Congress reimposes sanctions, it would likely cause the JCPOA to unravel. Iran would then proceed with a program to develop nuclear weapons.

The White House has signaled that Trump will urge Congress not to reimpose sanctions, but rather hopes Congress will pass new legislation beyond the scope of the original deal. "If Congress complies, such unilateral action to change a multilateral agreement will effective kill it," Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs and US lead negotiator for the JCPOA, wrote in The New York Times.

Moreover, if Trump's actions scuttle the Iran deal, it will send a dangerous message to North Korea that the United States cannot be trusted to abide by its multilateral agreements.

Both Trump's threats against North Korea and his undermining of the JCPOA could lead to nuclear war.

US Violates Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear states to eliminate their nuclear weapons and non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring them. In 2005, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the Institute for Public Accuracy, "The US government is not adhering to Article VI of the NPT and we show no signs of planning to adhere to its requirements to move forward with the elimination -- not reduction, but elimination -- of nuclear weapons."

In 1996, the International Court of Justice stated in an advisory opinion, "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." But the nuclear powers have ignored that decision.

And in spite of UN Security Council Resolution 687, which established a weapons-of mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East, Israel maintains a formidable nuclear arsenal.

"The nuclear weapons states, governed by political realists, basically have no trust in law or morality when it comes to national security," international law expert Richard Falk wrote, "but base their faith in the hyper-rationality of destructive military power, which in the nuclear age is expressed in the arcane idiom of deterrence, an idea more transparently known in the Cold War Era as Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD!!)."

Indeed, Trump is planning a $1 trillion rebuilding of the US nuclear weapons program.

Only the US Has Used Nuclear Weapons

The United States is the only country ever to use nuclear weapons. On the day of the Hiroshima bombing, 19-year-old Shinji Mikamo was on the roof of his house helping his father prepare it for demolition when he saw a huge fireball coming at him. He heard a deafening explosion and felt a searing pain throughout his body. It felt as if boiling water had been poured over him. His chest and right arm were totally burned. Pieces of his flesh fell from his body like ragged clothing. The pain was unbearable. Shinji was three-quarters of a mile from the epicenter of the bomb. He survived, but most of his family perished.

Shinji's daughter, Dr. Akiko Mikamo, author of Rising From the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness, told a Veterans for Peace Convention that 99 percent of those who were outdoors at the time of the blast died immediately or within 48 hours.

This should serve as a cautionary note to Trump -- and Congress -- that there is no trifling with nuclear weapons.

"The Calm Before the Storm"

Yet during a photo opportunity he staged with military leaders after meeting with them to discuss North Korea and Iran, Trump issued an ominous warning:

"You guys know what this represents? … Maybe it's the calm before the storm."

What storm?

"You'll find out."

Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, told The Hill that Trump's decertification of the Iran deal "will trigger a process that very likely will lead to the collapse of the deal."

Parsi said on Democracy Now!, "The buzz here is that there's going to be a very significant ramping up, an escalation, in the region against Iran, potentially including shooting down Iranian airplanes, sinking Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf, targeting Iranian troops or Iranian-allied troops in Iraq and in Syria."

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are reportedly counseling Trump to certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.

But Trump has consistently criticized the Iran deal, probably because it was concluded on Barack Obama's watch and Israel is dead set against it.

In any event, Trump is playing with fire -- nuclear fire -- in both North Korea and Iran. We must pressure the White House and Congress members alike, and hope that cooler heads prevail. The stakes are unbearably high.

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Categories: Latest News

Oil Change International Statement on Clean Power Plan Repeal

Commondreams - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 14:25
Oil Change International

Today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to repeal the Clean Power Plan. In response, Janet Redman, U.S. Policy Director at Oil Change International issued the following statement:

Categories: Latest News

Nurse Volunteers in Puerto Rico Call For Escalation of Relief Efforts Amid Dire Conditions for Residents

Commondreams - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 12:48
National Nurses United

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, registered nurse volunteers on the ground continue to sound the alarm about dire conditions and countless numbers of residents still in desperate need for assistance amid a federal relief effort that has failed to reach many people in need. 

NNU’s Registered Nurse Relief Network sent 50 RNs as part of a 300-member deployment led by the AFL-CIO in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Federation of Labor and the San Juan Mayor’s office.

Categories: Latest News

Wed. Oct. 11th Grandma Drone Protester, Mary Anne Grady Flores, Appeal to be heard by NYS Court of Appeal - 2pm

Commondreams - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 11:40
The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, the long-awaited appeals case of Mary Anne Grady Flores, one of many grandma drone protesters at NYS Hancock MQ-9 Reaper Drone Base, will be heard by the N.Y.S. Court of Appeals, 20 Eagle Street, Albany, NY 12207. Depending on the verdict, Grady Flores, who has already served 56 days, may complete another 65 days in Jamesville, Onondaga County Jail, E. Syracuse. The NYS Court of Appeals, the highest court in NY State, with a panel of seven judges, will render a decision in one to six months. 

Categories: Latest News

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